In 2019, Vietnam welcomed 18 million international guests, a 16.2% year-on-year increase, taking the tourism industry to new highs. Combined with the 85 million domestic travelers, the total revenue reached VND726 trillion ($31.4 billion).
Heralded as Asia’s leading destination and one of the “best of the best around the world” by prestigious organizations and publications, the country laid out plans and strategies to attract 20.5 million international travelers and rake VND830 trillion ($35.9 billion) in revenue by 2020. From overhauling transportation infrastructure to granting visa exemptions to more nationalities, Vietnam was so certain it would reach its goal. Until it wasn’t anymore.
The COVID-19 pandemic turned the tourism industry upside down. Shuttered borders, cancelled holidays and flights, weeks-long quarantine and mandatory tests - the industry that drove Vietnam’s economic growth fell into the gaping abyss.
With only 3.8 million foreign guests last year, mostly experts, diplomats and investors, the country recorded a saddening 76.6% y-o-y decrease while the total venue for tourism was down 59% with only VND 16 trillion ($722 million). This sharp decline in figures also forced nearly one-fifth of tourist accommodations to close permanently and nearly 340 inbound tour operators to withdraw their business certificates.
Even with the Vietnamese government’s solid multi-level responses and inter-agency collaboration to mitigate the impact of the pandemic to the tourism industry and hasten recovery by shifting focus on the domestic market, tourism experts said “it could bring in revenue but not save the tourism industry”.
As reported by VnExpress, Vietnam Tourism Association (VTA) chairman Nguyen Huu Tho, said that Vietnam should prepare to welcome vaccinated foreign visitors back to the country from the beginning of the third quarter, like that of Thailand and Singapore’s plans.
Nguyen Huu Tho explained that Vietnam’s success story in COVID-19 will create favorable conditions for the industry to reopen to the international market.
"Vietnam should prepare to receive international visitors from July to help the heavily-hit tourism industry recover as 95 percent of inbound travel firms have suspended operation,” Huu Tho told VnExpress. He added that Vietnam’s tourism sector can only recover once foreign guests start coming in.
This move would be critical, and is expected to draw mixed reactions from the locals and other industries. Opening the borders again would mean exposing Vietnam to risks of new coronavirus outbreaks.
The VTA will need to set some criteria for inbound travelers, probably including vaccine passports as one of the main requirements, to ensure that they have been vaccinated.
But with the inadequate number of vaccines manufactured and the disproportionate access and distribution of available doses, requiring vaccine passports may limit the number of countries allowed to travel and enter the country.
When Vietnam starts accepting foreign leisure travelers, it is seen that the country would first allow nationals from its regional peers. With Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, South Korea and Japan having started their vaccination programs, visitors from these countries have greater chances of experiencing a real tropical holiday in Vietnam soon.
Small group travel, wellness retreats seen to rise
The pandemic has paved the way for more conscious ways of traveling. Revenge travel? No, that won’t last. What will come out of these troubling times are more discerning and selective travelers who want to ensure that they travel sustainably, stay safe and free from diseases and get more unique experiences. These changes present an opportunity for industry players to rethink tourism operations and offerings.
According to a research by Outbox Consulting Vietnam will see a rise in preference for small group travels and wellness journeys. While these aren’t new trends, many inbound travelers, especially Chinese nationals travel in large groups before the pandemic hit the world.
Travelers would want to maintain social distance, the report said, to minimize health hazards. A regular trip in 2019 could accommodate 20 to 30 visitors, but for 2021, the size will certainly shrink down.
As this trend becomes more prevalent, tour operators need to design itineraries for smaller groups and would involve more remote and isolated areas where contact with other people is limited. Biking or hiking tours, for example, would probably become a hit.
Going on retreats with personalized wellness immersions will also pick up momentum. A curated itinerary that features yoga, fitness, detox and mindfulness meditations will help travelers forget the fatigue and stress of 2020.
Vietnam has already been considered an emerging destination for the wellness travel trend. And with the country being tagged as one of the safest places to travel in the midst of a health crisis, the increase in demand for this kind of travel will be a good opportunity for the country’s wellness tourism market.